August 30, 2008

Low Water is Draining Some of the Fun

By Elizabeth Hock and Laurie Edwards

Water levels close to 4 feet below full pond are casting a wet blanket over Smith Mountain Lake. Lack of rainfall has put a damper on recreational activities -- from anglers who use public ramps to launch their boats to homeowners stuck in their coves. It's also forcing organizers of the lake's largest charity effort to come up with a contingency plan in case the dry spell continues.

The remnants of Fay, a tropical depression that blew through the Gulf Coast last week, dumped much-needed rain in the watershed and somewhat eased the high anxiety the low water has caused.

Appalachian Power has been taking strides to keep lake levels as high as possible during the drought, according to John Shepelwich, a spokesman for Appalachian. The power company already has been granted two variances from the Department of Environmental Quality to lower outflow from the project. Current outflow, per the variance, is 480 cubic feet per second daily average, a reduction of 170 cfs from normal outflow as designated by the power company's license.

The variance has slowed drops in lake levels slightly. On Aug. 18, the adjusted lake elevation was 791.97 feet. As of Wednesday at 1:05 p.m., the lake was at 791.8 feet. But because of low inflow into the project, Shepelwich said the power company has filed an extended variance request with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. If granted, the variance would be in effect until the lake reaches full pond, or 795 feet.

Damaging to boats

The public boat ramp at Smith Mountain Lake State Park might be the most popular spot on the lake these days; it's the only safe bet for boaters looking to launch their crafts without doing them damage.

"People learn -- the fishermen -- they know where to go when the lake is down," said Capt. Al Busch of Smith Mountain Lake Marine Volunteer Fire/Rescue. "You've got to pay at the state park to launch your boat, but it's worth it not to damage your boat. There's a stop and two ramps there."

Busch said he has checked out four other public boat launches -- Hardy Bridge, Hales Ford, Scruggs (off Dudley Amos Road) and Anthony Ford (in Penhook behind Vista Pointe) -- and they are in "bad shape." Low water has rendered them almost unusable.

The ramp at the state park is longer than the others so vehicles are able to get closer to the water to launch. Busch said he has seen would-be boaters attempt to get their crafts in the water at several of the public launch sites, and were unable to do so.

"I went to Hales Ford, and somebody was looking to see if they could get their boat in," said Busch. "He couldn't do it. It was all sand; there was only 2 feet of water."

Busch said that at Hardy Bridge, the ramp is not as much of a problem as a sandbar close by on the main channel.

"Normally, there's 6 feet of water there, but I actually measured it and there was 3 feet," said Busch, adding that he saw a boat grounded near the sand bar.

Swanson Eanes, owner of C&L Marine, said there have been more people coming in for boat repairs than usual. Most, he said, are for chewed-up water pumps and sand-filled engine blocks from boaters running aground or hitting shoals.

"The engine blocks get stopped up with sand and they get hot," said Eanes. "We have to back-flush them to get all the sand out and then they're usually all right."

To prevent prop and engine problems like these, he said boaters have to be careful around shoals, which can be hard to see at night.

Busch said for larger boats, attempting to launch in water that is too low could damage the prop and the lower unit and bend the shaft. The problem is not as severe for smaller boats such as bass boats.

Safety concerns

But worst than damaging boats, low water is compromising the safety of lake residents, said Busch.

Although when water levels drop, fewer people are able to get their boats in the water, thus cutting down on the number of accidents, he's still concerned about safety issues.

The shoals around the lake are larger and more numerous, and rescue teams are forced to navigate around them, adding to response time.

"When you're going at 40 mph and suddenly the land comes up at 40 mph and you don't have brakes," the fire boats can be damaged, said Busch. "It's going to take longer to get to where you're going."

It can be especially daunting at night, he added, because shoals are difficult to spot in the dark.

Water levels at around 4 feet below full pond have made some areas of the lake impossible to access.

"For us going into the coves, a lot of times, we can't get into the back end," Busch said, citing a recent call to a dock where a man had fallen off a ladder and into his boat. "Our boats had to park like four docks away."

Low water has forced Fire/Rescue to remove three of their fireboats from their lifts. Busch said when returning to dock, it's almost impossible for the crew to get out of the fireboat to raise it. In addition, boats have been stocked with attic ladders because without them, Fire/Rescue workers are sometimes unable to climb up on docks.

It's especially difficult when maneuvering fire hoses or responding to medical emergencies, Busch said.

"Sometimes we have to park the boats on floaters, and carry the [rescue equipment] from the floaters," he said. "It's really tough for us."

Left high and dry

While Fire/Rescue is having problems getting in, many lake residents are having trouble getting out. Christie Bryden, a She- Doo, buddied up last week with Deedee Bondurant for the club's regular outing because Bryden couldn't get her Sea-Doo out of the lift at her Betty's Creek home.

"It's on the back side of the dock closest to shore," said Bryden. "We probably need to move the lift."

She had similar problems last year when lake levels dropped below 790 feet. Last week was the first time she was unable to get the Sea- Doo out this year. But because of its placement, Bryden said she is able to get her boat out because the water is deeper under the lift.

Deeper water is what organizers of this year's SML Charity Home Tour would like to see in the next month or so.

"Pray" was Chairman Marty Bowers' quick answer when asked what organizers were doing in anticipation of continued low water. Many visitors to the homes on the tour traditionally come by boat. Bowers said members of the traffic committee already are working on contingency plans if docks are deemed inaccessible because of low water on the tour dates, Oct. 3-5.

"We have to deal with what we're handed, but we have great people working. Somehow or other, we'll work through it," she said. "If it's not going to be safe, we'll close the docks."

Other solutions include installing emergency steps or extenders from floaters to stationary docks or allowing pontoon boats to dock on a sandy beach if there is one at the home. On the weekend of the tour, information about water access can be obtained by dialing (540) 297-8687.

Bowers said low water last year probably cut down the number of visitors. But dealing with fluctuating water is nothing new for tour planners.

"One year we had hurricane remnants come through, and the night before the tour was to start, the docks flooded," she said. "The water went down quickly, but we had to close due to high water."

Connie Black, a Hickory Cove resident, also has experienced the ups and downs of lake levels. Currently, she's having problems getting the boat and her WaveRunner into the water. While the cove hasn't dried up and many boaters have ventured in, the water is too shallow at the dock for her to join in the fun.

"Sometimes we can get our boat out around 11 o'clock, but we can't get back in," said Black.

When the water level fluctuates at the time Appalachian Power is generating power through the dam, Black said she and her husband just tie the boat up at the dock until they can get it back into the slip.

But low water is nothing new, she said.

"We've lived here for so long and we've seen it flood and we've seen it go very dry," said Black. "But all in all, it's a great place to live."

ELIZABETH HOCK | Laker Weekly 721.4675 (ext. 407)

LAURIE EDWARDS | Laker Weekly 721.4675 (ext. 406)

Lake levels, by the numbers

Aug. 27 adjusted elevation,

1:05 p.m.: 791.8 feet

Aug. 27 inflow, 1 p.m.: 3,489 cubic feet per second

Aug. 27 outflow, 1 p.m.: 400-410 cubic feet per second

Normal full pond: 795 feet

2007 minimum elevation: 789.57 feet, Oct. 23

Historical low: 787.60 feet, Jan. 23, 1970

Years lower than current: 28 of 42, or about 66 percent

For a listing of shallow or hazardous waters that may not be navigable, visit Tri-County Lake Administrative Commission's Web site at The list will be updated on weekdays. To report a shallow or hazardous area, e-mail [email protected] Photos of the areas are appreciated. For more information, call Pam Dinkle, TLAC's lake management and project coordinator, at (540) 721- 4400.

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